His strained voice called to us from the only bedroom in the basement apartment. “Kids, come in here. I have something to tell you.”
The air thickened around me. I shuffled my younger siblings from the living room into the bedroom where our dad stood bent, hands braced against a dresser for support. We lined up inside the doorway, eyes wide and staring at the broken man before us.
“Sit down,” he whispered.
My siblings complied, but I stood there frozen. At nine years old, I knew just enough about the world to know when something was very wrong. When my father began to choke on his tears, I thought of my step-sister’s tentative words to me during a recent visit…
“Your dad has AIDS. That’s why he keeps going back into the hospital.”
“He does not have AIDS! I would know if he did!”
“Yes he does, Crystal. I overheard my dad talking to your mom about it.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re lying!”
In that moment, in that small room with my dad, it started to become real. Fear flamed in my chest and I ran. I didn’t want to hear what my dad had to say, didn’t want him to know that I knew already, and most of all I didn’t want the words step-sister had said to be true.
I grabbed my dad’s car keys on the way out the door and locked myself into his rusty grey VW Beetle, sobbing. I kept hoping that he would come after me, that he would tell me that I had no reason to run away and no reason to be afraid. He did not come. I sat alone and cried until I was dry, until my head felt water-logged and achey. I wiped away the tears and waited what seemed like hours until the swollen skin around my eyes returned to normal. I steeled myself and walked back into the apartment.
My dad’s courage had left him when I ran out the door and he said nothing of what he had been about to tell us. We ate lunch instead and the day continued as normal. Life went on for a little while.
My siblings and I pretended (or forgot) about that breakdown. It was a shock to us when our dad died some time later, and we believed it when we were told that his death was due to meningitis and encephalitis. We knew nothing of the big secret that made such an impact on the trajectory of our lives. It was years before we were told the truth. Even then, we were sworn to secrecy.
I don’t keep secrets anymore. My dad has every right to cry, but so did we.